Health

Lifestyle

Nutrition

May 3, 2018

Eat your way to a healthier mind

3 Easy Tips to a Healthier Mind!

By Kristen Beck – Registered Nutritionist

Fact: our brains are highly sensitive to what we eat. Not only does our diet influence our brain function, it can even change the structure of our brains. Recent research from Deakin University shows that diets containing large quantities of refined carbohydrates, fast foods and sugar-sweetened drinks are associated with reduced size of the hippocampus (a part of the brain directly involved in learning and memory, as well as mental health and wellbeing1).

Every food choice we make can either help to balance our mood or stress us out. Worried your diet may be doing the latter?

Here’s 3 dieting tips to help boost your mood and support a healthy stress response.

Ditch the highly-processed, refined carbs

Highly-processed carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, cakes, biscuits and sugary foods and drinks) can negatively impact on our moods, mental health and wellbeing in three distinct ways:

  1. They displace healthier, more nutritious foods in your diet and can lead to potential nutritional deficiencies (particularly vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and essential fatty acids).
  2. The high Glycaemic Index (GI) of these carbohydrates causes rapid increases and rebound drops in blood sugars that can cause mood swings.
  3. They trigger low-grade, chronic inflammation in the body, which is linked to mental health conditions including anxiety and depression2.

Nutrition tip: Don’t avoid all carbs – just eat most of your carbohydrates in the form of vegetables, fresh fruit, legumes and minimally-processed whole grains.

Focus on your gut

It seems that one of the answers to a clear, relaxed and happy brain may lie with the microscopic bugs (bacteria) living inside our digestive system. More than 90% of our dopamine and serotonin (feel good neurotransmitters that send signals from our brain and around our bodies) are actually produced by beneficial gut bacteria.

To boost beneficial gut bacteria (and support production of dopamine and serotonin):

  1. Include fermented foods like live-cultured yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, tempeh and kimchi in your diet. These foods contain beneficial gut bacteria (probiotics).
  2. Base your diet on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. These foods have pre-biotic properties (they act like fertilizer for your good gut bacteria).

Stick to tradition

Study after study points to a good-quality, balanced diet being important to mental health. In fact, a recent Australian randomized control trial prescribing a Mediterranean diet for individuals with clinical depression showed significant improvement in dietary quality and association with improvements in depressive symptoms3.

But it’s not just the Mediterranean diet that has been shown to be helpful – any ‘traditional diet’ is associated with a lower risk of mental health conditions. The common element seems to be whole, minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods2. The benefits of the Mediterranean diet (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, fish) have been recognised for many years, however research also demonstrates that traditional Norwegian diet (fish, shellfish, game, root vegetables, dairy products, wholemeal bread) and the traditional Japanese diet (fish, tofu, rice, steamed greens) may be just as beneficial in the prevention of anxiety and depression. A reliance on unprocessed ‘real’ foods appears to be the key factor in these positive health findings.

Disclaimer: nutrition and healthy eating is only one component of mental health management. If you are concerned that yourself or someone close to you is suffering mental health issues, seek professional medical help and support.

References:

  1. Jacka, F., Cherbuin, N., Anstey, K., Sachdev, P. and Butterworth, P. (2015). Western diet is associated with a smaller hippocampus: a longitudinal investigation. BMC Medicine, 13(1).
  2. Molenddijk, M., Molero, P., Ortuno Sanchez-Pedreno, F., Van der Does, W. and Angel Martinez-Gonzales, M. (2018). Diet quality and depression risk: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis prospective studies.  J Affect Disord.
  3. Opie, R.S., O’Neill, A., Jacka, F.N., Pizzinga, J. and Itsiopoulos, C. (2017). A modified Mediterranean dietary intervention for adults with major depression: Dietary protocol and feasibility data from the SMILES trial., Nutr Neurosci, PMID: 28424045.